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What cemeteries have to tell


photo of graveyardThe heat hung heavy at the Weaverville cemetery last Sunday. High noon in August and the sun was nothing but brutal. But a different sort of brutality lay spread before us -- every third tombstone, it seemed, marked the grave of a child.

One year, six months, 17 days. Six years, five months, 11 days. A 13-year-old girl. A 2-month-old baby.

That is not a long life, I kept thinking to myself. That is not a long life.

The death dates were from the 19th century, when Weaverville was a bustling mining center. April 4, 1864. May 2, 1888. Oct. 28, 1894. June 3, 1872. "At peace," the tombstones said. "At rest."

It's true, there was that distinctive stillness, that graveyard hush, but whether that connoted sacredness or nothingness I couldn't say. What I did experience were brief visual flashes, thoughts that my imagination then formed into mental pictures (influenced no doubt by watching too many Merchant-Ivory productions): a mother in a high-necked dress, her face contorted in grief; a worried father in a black tophat pacing the floor; the doll-like visage of a baby, clad in a frilly nightgown, eyes shut forever.

My wife and I tend to tour cemeteries when we travel. A bit morbid, I guess. But we find it to be moving, and somewhat grounding. It's a way to connect with past generations, with people who really didn't live that long ago. At the same time, it's a bit disorienting -- the world they inhabited was so profoundly different that it almost defies comprehension. Horses, not cars; parlor games, not television; childhood epidemics, not worries about whether your kid is getting too much sugar.

This week, staff writer Emily Gurnon has written about a relatively new phenomenon -- fear of vaccines. A small but increasing number of parents in Humboldt and elsewhere are opting not to inoculate their kids. Their reasons include everything from fears of mercury poisoning to a belief that the vaccines are simply no longer necessary in this day and age. As Gurnon makes clear, that last perspective could be a dangerous one. Diphtheria, whooping cough and other age-old childhood scourges have been beaten back to be sure, but they have not been eradicated. They are lurking in the shadows, and will be, doctors' say, for the foreseeable future.

My wife and I have had our own doubts about vaccinating our 5-year-old daughter, but we've gone ahead and done it and feel the better for it. I'm not going to pontificate here about what I think other parents should and shouldn't do. But let me suggest this to parents who are grappling with this issue. Pay a visit to an old cemetery, like the one in Weaverville, or, closer to home, Arcata. Walk among the graves, look at the tombstones. And then, while you're still there, take some time to think.

PHOTO ABOVE: Deaths of children from communicable diseases were once common in Humboldt County. This plot at St. Mary's Cemetery in Arcata contains six child-size graves of the Silva family, who lost seven of their 10 children around the turn of the century. Two of them, ages 3 and 4, died of chicken pox on the same day in 1901, county records show. Chicken pox is now a required vaccine in California.



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